"Please don't adjust your set, you ain't seen nothing yet." The line is a send-up of those serious-sounding "One Moment Please" announcements that were once commonplace on local TV when things went wrong. The parody was on a scratchy comedy album from a misspent youth, but could prove prescient on the eve of the nation's transition to digital television -- or DTV -- this month.
The issue on the ground is how you get the signals out of the sky. At-risk viewers are those who rely on rabbit ears or rooftop antennas. Their sets will fall silent and snowy on Feb. 17 without a converter box.
Thankfully it's not IT's problem, unless you are South Dakota's Otto Doll. He is unique among state CIOs because running and programming the state's public broadcasting stations are in his wheelhouse. Public radio and TV happen to be the largest broadcasters in South Dakota.
"We have a natural tendency to expect the state to come to the aid of people in trouble," said Doll, who noted that South Dakota's experiences with fires, tornadoes, floods and hurricanes helped officials prepare a rabbit-ear rapid response. "We know things are going to fail, we just don't know where," he said. Losing TV reception is less severe than losing access to bank machines, he said, but residents still rely on broadcasters for emergency alerts and other information.
The problem is threefold. "Some people will not have heard they needed to do anything, some will have heard but decided to do nothing and others will have done something but will have done it wrong," Doll said. Consequently the state deployed a handful of its public TV engineers in a modified train-the-trainer model to make house calls to different communities. The engineers work with volunteers to provide troubleshooting knowledge, including how to reorient antennas.
South Dakota's planners studied an early DTV transition in Wilmington, N.C., last fall to get a sense of what to expect. The Wilmington experiment drew 1,823 phone calls about adjusting antennas, setting up and tuning converter boxes, and why the transition was happening in the first place. But the largest share of the calls (553) was from residents who complained they were unable to receive their favorite TV stations' signals.
Doll said his state "will muster another six engineers [and] whatever resources I have to make do" as the DTV deadline approaches. Given Wilmington's call breakdown, Doll saw an opportunity to enlist communications students from the University of South Dakota to staff a phone bank, with his engineers standing in the wings. South Dakota Public Broadcasting (SDPB) will cap an awareness campaign that has included 5,000 radio and TV announcements with a DTV telethon, which will have the look and feel of a pledge drive, but instead of asking for money, the SDPB will answer viewers' questions on the air and through the phone bank.
By definition, this will be the last time that video will not be IT's problem. Digital video is the new lingua franca, and broadcasting's transition removes analog as the last big barrier to convergence and carriage on any network, including yours.
Editor's Note: This column was published before a congressional decision on Feb. 4 to delay the DTV transition deadline. Broadcasters now have until June 12 to turn off their analog signals, although they can do so anytime after Feb. 17. This article originally appeared as Rabbit Ear Response in the February 2009 issue of Government Technology magazine.